The Heartland and I ~ fiction by Thomas M. McDade

I was surprised to find Carly sitting at the Rathskeller bar. Her high cheekbones were blushed and her ash-blond hair was shorter than I remembered. She wore a white ruffled blouse and a light maroon sweater. She made a career of two rum Cokes then switched to ginger ale that lasted until closing time.  Our conversation was brief. She shared her dream of doing charcoal caricatures for a living on the boardwalk. I’d heard that many times when we worked together at the Viking. I was a desk clerk. She labored in housekeeping. Carly moved on to the swanky Cavalier. The Rathskeller was jumping due to Curvy Sophie Roark, with the Dane Foster Five. They always filled the place. I was wiping down the end of the bar when I spotted Carly missing.  She left a two-buck tip that I would have pushed back had I seen her place it. I was beat, anxious to get to my room at the Smith-Lee Guesthouse. I was hoping to save money enough to rent at the Harley Apartments on Pacific, needed to get better wheels too.  Just as I was turning left on 22nd, I heard a shrill whistle; sounded like one a father might use to get his kids into the house for supper, index and pinky corners of mouth.  Carly was standing on the other corner by a Forbes Candy Shop.  She ran to me.  “Boardwalk stroll me,” she just about ordered. All my weariness departed, as if she’d magically infused me with a pot of espresso.

The clear sky held a three-quarter moon watching over the light breeze. I was glad I’d worn my trench coat.  A handful of ship lights were falling stars if I quickly blinked. “What’s better than this?” Carly asked; her arm tourniquet tight around mine. When we got to the Norwegian Lady Statue at 25th, she led me to a bench. “I bet you never read the plaque.”

“I sure have. It’s a memorial to shipwreck victims.”

“Bravo,” she said, releasing her hold, clapping her hands. She kissed me, no more than a peck. “This is my favorite place. Sometimes I am the Lady.  I think the sculptor had Captain Jorgon’s wife Johanne in mind.  She was among the dead, pregnant, mind you.  Why in the hell was a woman in a family way at sea? Poor fellow had a lot to live with.  I lost a child too, a miscarriage. I’ll never conceive.”

I imagined the ship breaking apart, 1891, flotsam as brown as Carly’s intense eyes. “See that tightly clenched fist,” she added. “That’s solidarity with her sister memorial in Moss, Norway.  I see the strength. I’m fighting as hard as Johanne myself. Sometimes I have to be as strong.” Carly was as passionate as an actor or a torch singer. I recalled Sophie Roark making a fist, mid-song, almost a threat.

“You’ve got to be kind and helpful, Philip, be a man of good deeds.  You’ve probably dropped money in a drugstore canister to support The Big Brothers Program.”

“I have, not much though.”

“Do more. Johanne’s son, Carl, a four-year-old, drowned too.  Think about volunteering in his name; take a single mom’s kid here. Some boy who’s never been to a beach, never seen a seagull, or dolphin fins poking out of the surf.  Wouldn’t take much, plastic pail and shovel would do all the entertaining. Think about it.”

Damned if that didn’t strike me as a request beyond strange.

After the beach patrol jeep searching for vagrants, its lights as bright as on a movie set, passed, she kissed me. I felt as though she’d pulled me from a riptide and was performing resuscitation. “It’s time,” she said and grabbed my hand. Despite the chill, her grip was warm.  She led me down the boardwalk steps. We settled to the side of them.  She relieved me of my coat like a floorwalker who’d captured a shoplifter leaving a department store. The way she gently positioned it made me think of a summer beach blanket. We made love. How could my performance be anything but dismal with her panting the names of cities, Racine, St. Paul, Cleveland, Des Moines and Davenport? She ended the brief litany with my name. I felt like an afterthought, something omitted from a shopping list suddenly recalled. We returned to the bench. I draped my coat over her shoulders.  Shivering, I held her as she chatted on as if we’d never hit the sand.

“Too bad we weren’t still working at the hotel, better connection,” I interrupted.

“We’re honorary Vikings.”

“Amen,” I said.

“So, you’ll look into the Big Brothers, right?

“Carly, I don’t really think that’s something I’d be much good at.” She jumped up.

“You son of a bitch, I shared my body and soul with you and you do this to me? Someday, someway, you will be punished.” I stood, started sidling away from her.

She missed with a swing and a kick. I hustled off.  I was planning to take a Psych 101 course at Old Dominion.  I imagined Carly listed in the textbook’s index. I was out a London Fog.

A few weeks later, I learned of Carly’s arrest at an I-64 rest stop, charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor as well as extortion. She’d accused a Maryland judge of fondling a ten-year-old boy she’d lured from a housing project by promising an amusement park visit. The judge wasn’t the only one in the restroom. A maintenance man installing a new toilet had been there well before she started surveillance and witnessed the kid’s screaming and scramming for no reason at all. The judge summoned a security guard when Carly came on with her “Cash and I’ll forget this ever happened” offer. The law linked her and her racket to the erotic Midwest cities and others after wives noted diminished bank accounts and extracted hubby confessions. A narrow escape sent her packing east. Oh yes, the cops informed me of her escapades while grilling me. She’d named me as her right-coast connection. They might have believed my side of the story that included the Big Brothers and the threat but the drawing in the boy’s pocket was no charcoal caricature. It did too much justice, framed me like billboard by a cornfield on I-80, Iowa.

Thomas M. McDade resides in Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI. He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Virginia Beach, VA, and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE/FF 1091).